This week we come to the end of the story of the life of the prophet Elijah, as we join his successor Elisha in watching him ascend into heaven in a chariot of fire caught up in a whirlwind. His mantle (or cloak), the symbol of Elijah’s power and abilities, descends on his successor in this scene, and Elisha uses it to part the waters and cross over on his way to his own mission. It is an earlier scene involving the mantle, however, that we need to recall in order to appreciate the details of Jesus’ speech in our gospel lesson.
In 1 Kings 19:19-21 Elijah found his successor and “passed the mantle” to him symbolically. In that earlier scene, God sent Elijah out from the place we saw him last week, Mt. Horeb, to find the one who would follow him. Elijah found Elisha plowing, with twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him. Elijah passed by Elisha and threw his mantle over him. Elisha left the oxen and ran after Elijah, saying, “Let me kiss my father and mother and then I will follow you.” Elijah rebuked him, and Elijah went back, slaughtered the yoke of oxen, made a fire out of the yoke and cooked the meat, which he then fed to the people. Having symbolically broken with his former life, Elisha then followed Elijah as his servant.
Remember this scene when you read Jesus’ words to the one who would follow him.
The yoke also figures in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul writes that because Christ has set us free, “therefore do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” He presents in this passage a Christian ethic in reply to those demanding observance of the law from the Galatians. The behavior of those called in freedom to live by the Spirit is marked primarily by mutual submission, an important concept for Paul and his followers. The catalogue of vices and virtues that Paul lists would have been a familiar form of ethical instruction in the Greco-Roman world. It is important for us to understand that when Paul speaks of “the flesh” in opposition to “the Spirit,” he is not referring to the physical bodies we inhabit. Rather, he means the world, “the principalities and powers,” in which we live; it is the yoke of slavery we are called to keep off. Compare the list of the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” To which he adds, “There is no law against such things.” If you’re looking for your next tattoo, Paul’s list would make a good one.
The gospel reading from Luke this week is the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with his followers. He is going there “to be taken up,” Luke writes, in language that echoes the ascension of Elijah and that presages Jesus’ ascension following his resurrection; the phrase also indicates, of course, the way Jesus will die. Luke will continue to repeat the phrase “set his face” in describing Jesus on his way to Jerusalem; this is a Semitic idiom that expresses Jesus’ resolve, his determination and drive toward the consummation of his ministry on earth. The Samaritans of the region reject Jesus and refuse to help what appears to them to be a group of pilgrims headed to the wrong shrine. Jews in Galilee of the time made one journey, if they ever made a journey at all, and that was to make the three to four day walk to Jerusalem. Making such a journey would have been for them a recreation of the great journey of the Exodus, and they would have told that story on their way, along with others from scriptural accounts of God’s dealings with their ancestors. Luke may well have had this in mind in using this journey frame for Jesus’ plans to go to Jerusalem to fulfill his exodus. From now on, Jerusalem is the goal, and Jesus is constantly on the move.
The reading concludes with an exchange between Jesus and those who would follow him. Note the language borrowed from 1 Kings 19, used here to describe the demands for following Jesus. The obligation to bury one’s father was one of the most binding obligations for Jews, but even that is secondary to the call to follow Jesus. Jesus indicates that this obligation can be left to the spiritually dead who remain behind. To the one who would go home to say good-bye, Jesus replies with a plowing analogy about not looking back while holding the plow. Those of us who don’t plow much don’t immediately catch the point: taking your eyes off where the plow is going will cause the furrow to be crooked! It is clear to us, however, that Jesus is demanding a focus forward: if you are on a journey, you need to keep your attention on where you are going, not looking back to where you have been.
Thoughts For Connecting Lessons to Living
1.) What is the “yoke” that keeps you from freely living the Christian life Paul describes? Jesus says elsewhere that his “yoke is easy.” How can we begin the process of exchanging one yoke for the other?
2.) Where is Jesus asking us, especially us as the Cathedral Family, to travel, not yesterday, but tomorrow? Are we willing to follow him wherever he leads?